Timothy EHLINGER, Mirela BUCUR and Lucica TOFAN, A Systems Framework For Project-Based Transdiciplinary Education And Research Training In Sustainable Development

Abstract

Conceptualizations of sustainability have evolved from early ideas of steady-state resource management to embrace more complex approaches that incorporate dynamic models of social-ecological systems.  This progression moves beyond consideration of practical interconnections among the “Three Pillars” (i.e. “People, Planet, Prosperity”), towards integrated research on social-ecological resilience and the capacity for systems to cope with uncertainty.  However, addressing the problems of sustainability, resilience and vulnerability of the ecosystem services requires frameworks capable of bridging across traditional disciplines to foster functional literacy with the concepts, patterns, processes and feedbacks among biophysical, social and institutional domains. The need to train students to think across disciplines presents significant challenges for traditional academic departments, which often compete for limited resources that are allocated in direct proportion to the number of students they can recruit into their discipline.This paper presents an analysis of the effectiveness of an international university undergraduate study-abroad program in developing interdisciplinary thinking and trans-disciplinary competencies related to sustainable development.  The International Research Experience (IRES) collaborative summer program between the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Ovidius University-Constanta program brought together students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to study Integrated Coastal Zone Management and planning along the Black Sea Coast. Students worked collectively during 6-week sessions to develop sustainable redevelopment plans for a coastal lake social-ecological system. Romanian and US students researched topics ranging from surveys of stakeholder values, traffic patterns, aquatic ecology and landuse, to ecotoxicology and biodiversity. Studies were formulated into an integrated management plan presented at an international conference at the end of each summer of the 4-year program.  Student surveys, group concept and system mapping, reflective journals, team presentations, and interviews given before and after each summer were used to assess student achievement of specific learning goals and objectives related to sustainable development. The effectiveness of the IRES program in developing transdisciplinary thinking was examined and differences relative to disciplinary background and preparation were explored. On average student self-evaluation scores were significantly higher for students following their participation in the summer IRES program, and compared to students who participated in a course on sustainable development not involving study-abroad.

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